As the screamin' front man for New Jersey thrash-metal legends Over Kill since the group's formation, Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth has seen, experienced, and learned a lot in three and a half decades. So what is the one piece of advice that his 2014 self might offer the 1980 Blitz?
"Give up the fucking cigarettes, man. Throw them away!" he laughs heartily. "I smoked for 35 years and was chained to the things. I'd have a nicotine patch on while chewing nicotine gum with a Marlboro hanging out of my mouth! But I've been tobacco free for two years, and I wish I'd done it sooner."
That Ellsworth's voice is in fine, fine condition (and that he can hit those super high notes) is much in evidence on the band's newest effort, White Devil Armory (eOne Records).
While not a concept album, the 11 tracks are essentially short stories featuring a character known as the Armorist. Ellsworth's lyrics take him on a journey of war, cage-fighting, medical emergencies, devils, politics and religion, all set to brutal double bass drums, deep bass notes and shredding guitar solos.
Ellsworth says he created the Armorist as a sort of doppelganger, injecting into him emotions and experiences rooted in reality from the past couple of years, especially in the track "Freedom Rings."
"That's about freedom being granted rather than something that is a right," Ellsworth explains. "And I equate that with [the Armorist's] relationship with God.
"I'm not really a Christian, but the Armorist had a higher power that gave him the freedom," he adds. "And it gives him a helluva lot less responsibility to know he's not the center of the universe."
Overkill's current lineup includes original members Ellsworth and D.D. Verni (bass), along with lead guitarist Dave Linsk (since 2000), rhythm guitarist Derek "The Skull" Tailor (since 2002), and drummer Ron Lipnicki (since 2005). But despite the changes in players over the years, the group's sound of classic East Coast thrash-metal has stayed pretty much consistent.
However, Ellsworth says that should not be equated with complacency.
"There's always internal progress in the band from guy to guy, and that's one of the keys to our longevity," he offers. "It might be new equipment or me trying to hit better high notes or [Ron] taking the drum lessons that he does."
"Overkill is Overkill -- we don't have an identity crisis," continues Ellsworth. "And when you don't have that, you have a lot of freedom. You're not worried about your progress, but your consistency," he continues. "I mean, I've seen bands release two records and then get labeled the 'voice of a generation.' Come on!"
Ellsworth has known bassist Verni for nearly two generations. And as the longest-serving members of Overkill, the pair have a certain ingrained communication skill when writing or performing.
"We can communicate with a nod and a wink and we know what the other guy is thinking. And when you can depend on a person to come through, you know you're in a good relationship," Ellsworth says.
"But I don't send him flowers on his birthday or anything!" he adds. "Even his wife -- who I've known as long as him -- says the key to us is that we take stock in the people in our lives...and we don't overtalk things!"
On the phone, Ellsworth's East Coast accent is instantly recognizable (the band hails from New Jersey). And geographically -- not to get all rap feud -- he says there is a difference between thrash on the right-hand side of the country as opposed to the left.
"We're really cousins," he surmises. "I remember in the '80s you were excited when Testament or Exodus or Megadeth came to town. I remember sitting on the hood of a car in front of a Brooklyn club having a beer with Dave Mustaine and talking about what our next [career] moves were going to be."
Another thing he says that East Coast thrash bands had were an infusion of "nasty, dirty, please-kill-me-now" punk-rock energy rammed down your throats by Bowery and East Village-area bands like the Dead Boys, Ramones, Heartbreakers and the New York Dolls, whose members seemed barely removed from their similarly minded fans.
"You would see Joey Ramone walking down the street," Ellsworth recalls. "Or Dee Dee Ramone with a beer in a bag at three in the afternoon looking like he just fell out of a club. I saw [Dead Boys singer/guitarist] Stiv Bators on 8th Street, shirtless, with a jug of wine in his hand, thinking, 'Holy fuck! This is cool!' And we just applied that punk energy to the New Wave of British heavy metal for our music."
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While Ellsworth doesn't have any particular memories of playing Houston over the years, he is an admirer of the attitude and inhabitants of Lone Star State.
"What I like about Texas is that it's a state unto itself. There are 49 states in the country, and then there's Texas!" he laughs.
"It's got attitude and hospitality," Ellsworth continues. "And when we cross the border into Texas, it's like going into a completely different country. Like Poland or France. It's really cool that Texas has a set of nuts!"
As for the future of Overkill, Ellsworth says they'll be touring White Devil Armory for about 18 months, which will take them through the U.S. (twice), Europe, Japan, and possibly Australia.
Finally, to clear up some old business, while the slots for classic thrash-metal's "Big Four" -- Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax -- are firmly taken, we ask Ellsworth if that were ever expanded to a "Big Five," who gets the extra slot: Testament, Exodus or Overkill?"
"Aw man, that's gonna put me in a corner!" he laughs. "We measure our success in days, not dollars! But maybe you can find the answer in what I'm going to say.
"When [playing thrash metal] became harder in the '90s with grunge music, we never had a question about if we would stop doing it and go work for our moms and dads or something," Ellsworth offers. "We just needed to make it happen. We weren't going to let grunge stop us. And if it did, we'd just go back to the underground. I liked it there anyway!"
Overkill plays tonight at Scout Bar, 18307 Egret Bay Blvd., with special guests the Scourge, Relayer and Thraxis. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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